In American cities a century ago, coaches on rails, drawn by horses or mules, were recognized as the best all-weather means of transportation for the masses. Topeka was no exception in it's use of horse-drawn equipment which dated from 1881, until 1886 when it became apparent that there was a better way to pull the coaches.
This improved method of locomotion was provided by small steam driven locomotives developed largely by the huge Baldwin Works in Philadelphia. Baldwin was a veteran manufacturer of fine road locomotives and had entered the field of replacing horse drawn cars on city systems with their small engines called ‘Dummy Engines.”
The steam dummy was a unique machine and resembled the electric cars yet in the future. More of the steam engines were used on cross country railroads. The dummy engines were carefully covered over with a small superstructure which hid any resemblance to the road engines which were famous for causing the horses to bolt and run away. Old Dobbin, so it was claimed, would have little concern over just another horse car on the streets.
The COMMONWEALTH dated December 1, 1887, stated that, “The motors (dummy engines) were built at the Baldwin works in Philadelphia and can attain a speed of twenty-five miles per hour, although ordinary running speed is barely half that. It will serve to illustrate the power of the motors in use which are scarcely inferior to an ordinary locomotive.”
Dummy steam locomotives were used in and around Topeka for about three years beginning in mid 1887. Their passing from the scene was not abrupt. Three local systems which used dummy engines simply ceased to operate--the North Topeka, Silver Lake & Rossville line, the Topeka Belt Line, and the West Side Circle. Conversions from steam to electricity were made by Topeka & Vinewood Park (formerly East Side Street Railway), and the Topeka Rapid Transit line. The dummy engine carried a crew of two. The engineer, who sometimes was known as the motorman, and the fireman. These engines carried no separate tender, but used a small space behind the boiler to carry coke and coal. This fuel was stockpiled around the city for easy replenishment. The steam dummy locomotive could not compete with the noiseless, clean, smoothly running street car powered by electric current.
The largest of the street railway companies in Topeka using the steam dummy engines was the Topeka Rapid Transit Railway Co. The COMMONWEALTH, dated December 1, 1887 notes:
The Rapid Transit Co. which runs their trains over fourteen miles of road commenced carrying passengers on the 10th of August last, and at that time had only eight miles of track laid in working order. By pushing ahead the work with all speed they today have a track for the most part in excellent condition, and the portion that remains unballasted will be completed in the spring. The company has four closed cars, four open cars and four motors; two additional motors and two additional closed cars are expected shortly to meet the desire for more rapid service.
On the arrival of the new plant it is intended to run the trains strictly on time, which according to the new time card will be every twenty minutes. During the winter months the cars will be heated so that the patrons will not suffer the slightest inconvenience.
Some twenty men are employed as engineers, conductors, etc., and in addition thirty men are working getting stone for track ballast. They expect that during the winter, sufficient stone will be prepared to completely ballast the line. Extensions will be started in the near future as soon as preliminary arrangements are made.
A station at the corner of Huntoon and Jackson streets is proving of great convenience to passengers, and it is quite an ornamental structure (see illustration). It is built of wood and contains offices for the company and a waiting room for passengers. A car and engine house have also just been completed and they are substantially built of brick and stone. There is accommodation for twelve motors and twenty cars and are well adapted for the purposes they serve.
Mary E. Jackson, in her “Topeka Pen and Camera Sketches,” published by Crane & Co., Topeka in 1890, included a good account of the formation and work of the same company:
In 1886, a company was formed by our most enterprising citizens to build a street railway from the most extreme southern suburbs of the city of Topeka to the extreme southern suburbs of the city of Topeka to the extreme northeastern.
Messrs. John Francis, J. B. Bartholomew, John Norton, J. W. Morris and Jonathan Thomas incorporated the Rapid Transit Street Railway Company November 6, 1886. The officers were: John Francis, president; J. W. Morris, vice president; John Norton, secretary; J. B. Bartholomew, treasurer. The road was to be a steam motor
system, and the capital was $250,000.
The main line was surveyed from Quinton Heights to Oakland, with lines running on the most important streets, reaching all points of interest; depots, hotels, colleges and public buildings, the main line running on Jackson Street from Twelfth Street to Second Street.
The road was constructed in the most durable style standard gauge, with 8-pound Johnston steel rails, and the steam motors were manufactured by the Baldwin Locomotive Works, having a separate motor for each coach. The equipment was all new and first class. Buildings were erected on Twelfth and Jackson streets for offices and stations.
The citizens talked, wondered, and scolded; said that the steam motors would ruin that part of the city through which they passed, that horses would be frightened, children killed, and grown people maimed for life; but the motors were put on and the road began operations with Mr. F. J. Payne as superintendent, and with over 18 miles of track.
Two weeks passed, and they could not accommodate the throng of passengers, who had forgotten that they would be afraid to ride on the new road.
Two of the most attractive additions to the city began to build up. All classes began to make homes in these suburbs, now that access was made easy by the Rapid Transit.
The development story of steam rapid transit is best told in the following newspaper reports clipped form old Topeka papers:
JOURNAL, Jan 4, 1887. Topeka Rapid Transit and council practically agreed on provisions of ordinance. Only obstacle: council wants Topeka Rapid Transit to contribute $25,000 to new bridge to accommodate Topeka Rapid Transit’s proposed cable road.
NORTH TOPEKA MAIL, (Frank Root & Sons, pub.), Feb. 25, 1887. Because Topeka’s proposed rapid transit scheme is a “circle’ railway it need not be inferred that there is a ‘ring’ connected with it.
NORTH TOPEKA MAIL, Mar. 11, 1887. Work as begun on Topeka’s Rapid Transit Railway and the iron has been shipped from the Cambrian Iron Works at Johnstown, Pa. Five miles under construction.
CAPITAL, Apr. 2, 1887. THEY MEAN BUSINESS. Work being pushed on Topeka Rapid Transit road. Started yesterday to build line on Jackson from 10th to 2nd. From 2nd & Jackson line to go east to Jeff, thence out by Santa Fe shops to Morris Add., a distance of 2.5 miles.
CAPITAL, July 7, 1887. Steam motors for Topeka Rapid Transit were landed in Argentine yesterday. They will be put together and placed on track in short order.
CAPITAL, Apr. 10, 1887. Washburn Land Co. contracts with Topeka Rapid Transit to extend line to Washburn Place Add., within 6 months. (Washburn farm, Munson to 13th west of present MacVicar Ave. 16 sq. blocks open Apr. 13, 1887.)
CAPITAL, Apr. 23, 1887. The Rapid Transit Company has opened the way for the old fogy street car companies. They will no doubt, having been shown how to do it, follow suit and come in second or third best in putting modern motive power on their lines since the Rapid Transit has shown them how to do it. the Rapid Transit will have finest coaches, best track and best motive power of any city in the U. S. So much for the Capital city, thanks to the Rapid Transit folks.
JOURNAL, July 29, 1887. “When will Rapid Transit cars start running?” Everyone is asking. Paving stones too high and must me mauled down.
JOURNAL, Oct. 1, 1887. Ad: Rapid Transit Railway Now Open For Business. From State House to Oakland, passing John Norton’s Second Add. Fare 5 cents.
TOPEKA STATE JOURNAL, Oct. 20, 1887. Tickets now on sale at First National Bank and at the Rapid Transit station, corner Jackson & Huntoon. Also new time cards available giving schedules (1) Santa Fe Depot & Quinton Heights, (2) Rock Island Depot, Lowman Hill, Norton Add, Washburn Place line, (3) Oakland Grove and State House line.
TOPEKA STATE JOURNAL, Oct 20, 1887. A journal reporter took a pleasant ride over the Rapid Transit this morning, to Lowman Hill and Washburn Place, in company with directors of the road. The line will be operated on schedule hereafter.
JOURNAL, Oct. 22, 1887. Topeka Rapid Transit is pushing construction on West Fourth out to Clay where line
will turn south to 8th St., where it will connect with line running to Martin & Dennis Add. About 100 men laying track.
CAPITAL, Mar. 6, 1888. An effort is being made to pass an ordinance that would require all street railway companies operating steam motors to run motors in front of coaches at all times. Matter postponed. Passed at later date (Feb. 22, 1888)
THE NORTH TOPEKA MAIL reported in its Dec. 16, 1887 issue: The Rapid Transit company is to be congratulated for extending it’s lines in so many directions in so short a time. It has already spent over $200,000 and equipped one of the finest lines of street railway in the United States. It is now operating over fourteen miles of road with six of the latest improved Baldwin noiseless motors and ten elegant coaches and next year expects to double the number of miles of road and increase the rolling stock accordingly, and as soon as a bridge is built expects to extend it’s line to North Topeka.
The six trains now operated make about eight trips daily, carrying on an average from 2,000 to 5,000 people, at the uniform price of five cents per trip. The present equipment of the road is ample to carry many times the amount of traffic which it at present carries, while at the same time the present traffic is proving entirely satisfactory. The traffic has been steadily increasing since the road began operating, and with the present ratio of increase will double inside of the present year, which it is expected to do.
On October 12, 1888, Topeka newspapers carried news of a drastic change in operation of the Rapid Transit line. Electricity would soon be used for power, giving Topeka the first trolley cars in the state. The announcement stated that the steam dummy trains which had been hailed only eighteen months earlier as the last word in street transit equipment, were now outmoded and too slow. Actually, the Rapid Transit management had been influenced by reports of lower operating costs from the relatively new trolley systems in Massachusetts and Virginia. Another factor that decided in favor of trolley cars was the fact that steam locomotive engineers who had shut down operations of the line while on strike earlier that year, could be replaced with easily trained motorneers.
The changeover to electric power was not without difficulties. Horse cars which were substituted for dummy cars during the transition, could not begin to maintain the old steam car schedules. For four months beginning in December, 1888, service on all Rapid Transit branches was incredibly poor. But all was forgotten and forgiven when in April, 1889, the “electrics” opened a new era in Topeka’s transportation history.
Above: John Francis, first president of Topeka Rapid Transit Co., and
Below: J.B. Bartholomew, treasurer who became president of the company when Mr. Francis resigned to join a New York banking house.
Above: The Station and office building when located on the east side of Jackson Street, betwen 11th and 12th Avenues. Click to enlarge and read statements from the Topeka State Journal, Feb. 18, 1888. Photograph: Kansas State Historical Society.